Have you ever been in a situation where you have given your opinion on something based on your knowledge and expertise only to be shot down by one ignorant fool? Have you ever had that experience on social media? And have you ever found that when you chose to ignore the ignorant fool on social media that they kept coming after you—attacking your character? And, to top off the whole experience, did you need a friend to step in and handle it, for fear that you would just explode on public channels?
I would be surprised if I encountered anyone savvy with the social media world who hasn't experience the troll attack at least once. It seems like a rite of passage to the internet world. For the most part, we're able to ignore the trolls, because they're after some strange definition of self-gratification, enjoying taking everyone else down into the dark hole of hell. But what if the troll is actually a stranger that we have openly let into our lives, influencing us?
When our interactions start on social media, we have no idea who will become a trusted friend and who will become the troll. It's a leap of faith. However, the internet and our habits on social media have become so integrated into our daily routines that when one person turns to trollish behavior, it can taint our entire experience.
In today's "We Let Them In" post, we're going to delve into why this seemingly harmless stranger turning into a troll can be just as must as a danger to our lives as the strangers who are out to do us physical harm.
Let me see if I can paint the full picture for you with my troll experience and the social media interactions that led to this post.
It started with a question about website design.
I've been working with web design since 2015. The number of websites that I have built can easily count over twenty. Yes, I use WordPress tools, so in some circles that doesn't classify me as a web designer, but as anyone who has actually built a website in recent years knows coding CSS or JAVA does not a web designer make either. There is so much that goes into building a good, working website that can attract readers.
Have I got the formulation right? Well, I don't know. Some of the websites that I have designed have disappeared, but not for reasons of my doing, meanwhile others have thrived. But I must be doing something right, because every time I turn around, I have someone tapping on my shoulder to look over their website and to provide them with feedback. Some people have paid me for my expertise, while other have not. But you know what, I'm okay with that, because it makes me feel good about myself, knowing that I was able to use my skills to help another.
So, when the conversation came around in one of my writing groups about a particular organisation's website and how the organisation could leverage that piece of internet real estate a little better, of course, I spoke up. It's my skill set that I was able to draw on and lend knowledge and ideas that could be of benefit.
Then the troll came in...
She didn't start out as a troll, but her original comment to my idea was confrontational, insinuated that she didn't have the time to take on my suggestion at all. It left this "your idea, so you do it" taste in my mouth. I did try to politely respond, saying that just because she didn't have the skill set necessary to do the job doesn't mean that she should shoot the idea down. I had never once said that she should be the one responsible for actioning my idea, which was actually related to creating a blog on the site using material that already exists within the organisation. I felt confident that there were other bloggers in the organisation (I can't be the only one), and I suggested that the idea go to the organisational committee, then be fielded to the greater membership.
That's when I stepped out of the conversation on social media, and I'm glad I did. As it was, I was already seeing red. It took every strength of willpower I had to not go mental on this woman. It wasn't the first time that I had bucked heads with her when it came to technology revolving around the internet.
I have been informed by a trusted friend (the one who posed the original question in the forum) that after I bowed out of the conversation, it had turned to a pointed attack on my character, saying that if I cared so much that I should volunteer more.
*blink blink* Excuse me? So, this woman who knows nothing about me or what I do, knows nothing about what I write, is allowed to cast judgement on me and say I need to do more?
I never saw the full conversation thread, because the entire thread had been deleted by my friend before I could see it. She just didn't want that negativity out there. Unfortunately, even knowing that such comments had been made has reached into a part of my psyche and harmed me in ways that I'm still processing.
Ladies and gentlemen, when I have a fellow editor and trusted friend telling me that I'm so passionate about writing and editing that I have a habit of giving too much of myself to everyone else, spreading myself too thin, and neglecting myself, doing more is the LAST thing I should be doing. And it's not just the one friend who can see it. I get similar comments on a regular basis from many of my writing buddies—and my husband. (I'm still trying to figure out how to do less.) But of course, according to the troll who attacked me on social media, who knows nothing about me or what I do, I need to do more.
What makes this whole situation worse is that had the discussion been a face-to-face conversation, in real life without a monitor to protect her, she would have never accused me of not doing enough. She would have never shot my idea down right out of the starting gate either. But there is something about being online that applies a perceived layer of protection, allowing the true nature of a person's ugly side to surface.
An online bully is still a bully.
The troll responsible for the attack is a bully. Every single interaction that I have ever had with the woman has resulted in me feeling like crap about myself because she made me so angry. And everything she says online is painted with the eloquent brush of superiority.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a bully is a "blustering, browbeating person, especially one who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable." A person who repeatedly shoots ideas down because "they don't have the time" and accuses you of not doing enough is being habitually cruel. A person who attacks your personal character on public forums is being insulting. It might not be what people commonly see as being a bully, but it is a bully nonetheless.
Bullying behavior, no matter its form, is designed to make the one being bullied feel bad about themselves and start to questioning their own actions—and not in a positive way. Psychologists have spent years trying to explain to the public what effect a bullying culture can have on people's mental and physical well-being. Bullying has even been linked to those committing suicide. There is a reason why there are anti-bullying laws and regulations in place to protect our youth while at school.
It has long been recognized that bullying is not restricted to just the school playground, but has migrated into the online world. Hell, the New Zealand government chose to take a stance against cyber-bullying back in 2015, explicitly making it a criminal act through the passing of the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015.
So, if a troll's online bullying behavior is unacceptable, why do they get away with it?
Because we let them.
At some point in the past, I had allowed this stranger into my life. Because of her personal experience within the writing industry, I openly engaged with her. She had knowledge that I wanted to learn—and it made me blind to her true nature. But at some point, she turned into the troll. Yet, she'll get away with how she has treated me (and others), because I'm not willing to tarnish my good name on public channels by calling her out for her bad behavior.
Instead, I let her comments and actions eat me up inside, damaging something just as valuable (if not more valuable) as my online reputation: my sense of self-worth.
The online world is different from the offline world.
Had this recent interaction with this online bully been in person, in the real world and not some world defined by ones and zeros, I would have called her out for her behavior. But as I said above, there is something about the internet that creates this perceived layer of protection that allows the monsters to come out and play.
Within an in-person discussion group, everyone is allowed to have their say. Whether their words are actually heard or not is an entirely different discussion, but no one is openly attacked for having an opinion. (Unless you want to talk about politicians, and that's an entirely different conversation.)
For the most part, the people I meet in person are lovely and sweet, even the ones who I know for certain have none of those lovely and sweet traits in their makeup. You can have those heated discussions, but you can also control it to a point where you can wind things back a bit to get your point across. Those who take things to the extreme, being rude on levels that are socially unacceptable, we excommunicated them from our circle of interactions, and we likely go out of our ways to avoid each other.
Online, however, mob psychology rules, and the troll attacks that seem to be the rite of passage has hardened many of us to the point that we are now filled with cynicism and are snarky in response. A small portion of our ugly sides leak through, and for the bulk of us, we can control it.
However, because there isn't a breathing face that cries and shows emotions attached to that profile, for some people, this seems to give them permission to totally let go of all social niceties and just let rip.
If this behavior is not tolerated offline, is it right for us to continue to tolerate it online?
There are no easy answers.
As a writer and a mother of two, I'll happily recognize that there are no easy answers.
For my own interactions, I do what I can to be true to who I am in real life. I'm a snarky person, filled with those one line quips that only seem to work when in the moment. As I have gotten older, I've come to appreciate how being able to say exactly what is on your mind is freeing, but when online, that filter on the snark is firmly in place. Some things are allowed to be said, others are not. For me, it's about protecting my reputation online, just as much as it is as protecting my physical security.
My daughter seems to have modeled her approach to online interactions after what I do, filtering so much of her snark, protecting her future self. However, my son has taken an entirely different approach.
While he has online accounts, the only people he interacts with online are those who he knows offline too. In doing this, he knows that if he says anything that can be taken entirely the wrong way, the ones reading (or hearing) the message are able to apply a filter to it that is unique to him. They know that he doesn't say anything out of spite or maliciousness, but sometimes... He's a 21-year-old male who has me for a mother. Need I say more?
Then there is the approach that my mother took: zero online interactions at all. She didn't even have a Facebook account. Dad does, so as far as she was concerned, there was no need for her to cross that line. (And given that her day job was as a social worker, I could see her point.)
Offline self-care is vital to survival in the online world.
There is one thing that this whole experience has hammered home for me. No matter what approach you take in living in the online world, your offline self-care is vital!
I will gladly admit that I'm probably the worst person in the world to give advice about offline self-care. Remember how I have many writing and editing friends—and a husband—who all tell me that I do too much? Well, I'm trying. Honestly, I am.
Here are just a few of the things that I've been doing offline to help restore my inner balance.
- Watch the sunrise (or sunset, if you don't want to get up that early, and regular readers of my blog will know that the sun rises in New Zealand bloody early!).
- Read a book.
- Go for a walk around the block.
- Do some hula-hooping. (Yes, folks, I have a hula-hoop, and it's bloody hard work to get that thing going and keep it going. My record is just over 3 minutes of solid waist-hooping before it fell to the ground.)
- Listen to a podcast. (Okay, this is not entirely offline, but you can download an episode to your device then disconnect from the internet.)
- Do something arts-n-crafty.
- Or, my personal favorite, plot out murder and write about it. (I'm allowed. I am writing crime fiction, after all.)
It doesn't matter what it is that you do in the offline world to look after yourself. Whatever it is, it should put a smile on your face or just make you feel good in general. If it doesn't, then you're doing something wrong.
As for me and the latest online troll in my life... Well, writing her death scene was exquisite. Just the thought of her gruesome demise brings a huge smile to my face.